The rankings, they are a’changin’!

As you’ve no doubt heard, Google has announced plans to change its algorithm to award higher search rankings to mobile-optimized websites. This will essentially downrank those who continue to act as if having a mobile-optimized site is a luxury, not a necessity. The update will go into effect on April 21, 2015.

Obviously, the news got the industry talking. Digital marketers began blogging (and blogging and blogging) about it, while web development firms started shooting out emails telling their clients to start making their websites mobile-friendly today.

Overit has always been pretty forthright that if you don’t have a mobile-friendly site, you’re going to lose business. We told you mobile was sky-rocketing. We explained why mobile sites cost more (and why they’re worth it) and what to consider. And we let you know your current mobile site may not be up to par.  We told you that by ignoring mobile, you were also ignoring (and isolating) a huge segment of the market;

And if you were losing business then, well, now you’re about to lose even more.

I don’t mean to sound harsh, but after years of talking about responsive design and development, Google – who essentially drives web technology industry-wide – is drawing a line in the sand. If you’re not paying attention, it’s time that you start.

Going mobile is no longer about ‘best practices’ in web development. Become mobile-friendly now or it’s going to eat into your bottom-line for your marketing strategy as a whole.

Wha? How Can Google Just Do That?!?!

They didn’t, actually. Google has been implementing mobile detection on websites for the past 5 years and has warned us all, many times this day would come.  This update is simply the implementation of a long-planned addition to its core algorithm. Years later, they’re finally delivering on that promise. Further, Google published recommendations for making your website mobile-friendly back in 2012. Did you listen?

Did you listen?

What does mobile-friendly mean?

The definition of a “mobile-friendly website” has been well-outlined by Google (see the above link). Your website must resemble one of three practices:

  • A website that is responsive; that is, your website is using media queries (or other methodologies) to display content tailored to the device the content is being viewed on. Essentially, this is a website that uses the same HTML markup for both desktop and mobile devices, but layout is dictated different via CSS. This is the preferred method for Google.
  • A website that uses different markup for both CSS and frontend HTML. Essentially, a different theme for your website, served to the user by the device’s ‘user-agent’, but relies on the same URL structure.
  • A completely different website served to mobile users, using a different URL structure, or domain (eg.

So Why now?

With an ever-increasing mobile market, the time is right for this change. Mobile users now account for most of the traffic on the Internet, and it’s time for Google to draw that proverbial line. However – I personally think that Google has held off for as long as they possibly could – and with good reason.

Responsive design and development adds more cost to an initial website build and requires more time spent researching, designing and coding for different devices and browsers. This is, admittedly, a higher investment by businesses to reach people online, and the curve for small business owners especially has always been more of a challenge. The previous goal has always been to get the highest performing product for the least amount of money.

However, just as your brick-and-mortar shop should accommodate every visitor, your website is now expected to do the same. And the investment in your web property should no longer just be a luxury, but a necessity – if you want to succeed in today’s online-focussed world.

Additionally, when Google first announced it was gathering data on mobile websites, developers were still being bogged down by outdated browsers still in heavy use with some target audience (IE6 optimization was still a thing). Today, modern browsers can handle the technology needed to accommodate a mobile-friendly site, and market share for older browsers has diminished markedly.

At Overit – we don’t even give an option anymore. We build responsive sites – period – and have been for several years. It’s industry standard.

What will these ‘algorithm changes’ mean for me?

First – it’s important to note that in Google’s official announcement it states this algorithm change will affect mobile search results – users who are searching from a mobile device. This does imply searches from desktop browsers will be unaffected, however, I would anticipate this is a short-lived reprieve, as Google has been trending toward awarding higher search results to websites with a greater overall user experience over the past few years.

I also use the term ‘reprieve’ loosely here. Keep in mind mobile device browsing has been rising substantially over the past several years, and now is actually trending higher than desktop browsing. This means that for the majority of users, you won’t show up as high as you want to/should be.

So awesome! Fix my website!

Well, not so fast there my Internet cowboy friend.

Optimizing your website for mobile takes more than flipping a switch, downloading a plugin or stacking your site on top of itself and calling it “responsive.” It’s not enough, from a usability or marketing perspective, to just ‘make it mobile-friendly.’ The site has to work for users. As such, just ‘shrinking’ the site is often not good enough. There has to be intentionality behind it, and in order to bring in that intentionality, the content has to be structured to allow for a mobile user to effectively achieve their goal.

There are also technology considerations. Websites built to allow for older browser compatibility tend to take on a different methodology of development, which is very likely to interfere with responsive development. Things like image-based or Flash-based font restyling should be completely redeveloped for mobile navigation structures.

Here’s the problem: if your website is not already optimized for mobile, or your website was built specifically to target older browsers, retrofitting responsive methodologies into your site is often an arduous task that may actually be cost-prohibitive.

Complicating things still, if your website was built non-responsively, it’s likely that there’s also a lot in the backend programming of your site is also outdated. Trying to fit a new design on an outdated codebase is like trying to retrofit a Corvette body on a Pinto frame. It just shouldn’t be done, and will most likely break down.

Instead of trying to retrofit your site to be more mobile-friendly, now may be a good time to re-evaluate your marketing and business goals. Use this opportunity to build a system that actually meets your needs and, more importantly, the needs of your users. If your users cannot use your website on their preferred device – for their intended goal – it’s likely that you’re unintentionally alienating that user.

What Google is going for here is an attempt to create a better web – that benefits both users and business owners alike. Creating methodologies in your web property to allow this to occur is now not only beneficial, but crucial for continued success.